The Greenwood Act of 1930 illustrates the obstacles faced by governments to provide adequate housing for the full breadth of society. Still recovering from the costs of war and amidst the economic downturn which began at the end of the 1920s, by 1930, Britain still had a housing shortage, and the avenues down which solutions were being sought continued to wind, bend and u-turn into novel solutions. Not all of these stuck, but all of them had a lasting impact on the laws that brought us rent.
In his book The Housing Debate (2011), Stuart Lowe offers a comprehensive study of many of the laws and events which shaped the changing landscape of housing and private rentals over the last one hundred and fifty years. For Lowe, the 1930s were still marked by discrepancies between meeting the housing needs of the middle and upper classes and poorer people. The “quiet revolution in standards and tenure structure did not affect the housing conditions of the great mass of poor working-class households who continued to inhabit, as they had done throughout the passage of the century, ageing and ill-equipped accommodation[.]” Whilst the private rental sector was thriving among those on low-to-middle incomes, there was still a gap between the quality of the supply and access among families and individuals struggling at the bottom.
In 1929, the United States underwent a catastrophic economic crisis comparable in scale to the devastation of the 2008 crash. The effects were felt across the world as American credit faltered and global trade declined. Despite the optimistic sentiments of certain mainstream economists, the British economy took a big hit. Unemployment reached highs of as much as 70%. Though the 1929-31 Labour government kept on such socially-minded measures as the Wheatley subsidies (which we discussed in Chapter 3), this economic precarity stunted its efforts to fulfill long-term commitments to building more housing. However, whilst they didn’t make any contribution to the persistent shortage of homes, the 1930 Housing Act introduced funding for an initiative to raise the living conditions of those least affected by previous legislation.
Government housing had only covered so much ground. There were still hordes of miners, factory workers and poorer, city-dwelling families who were crammed into matchbox terraces with no hot water. Working to five-year plans, local councils were solicited to respond to the situation by submitting proposals to clear slums and rehouse the inhabitants into new-builds. Due to financial shortages, most of these individuals and families ended up in small flats rather than multi-storey houses, and these were built to the most basic standards – though still considered a step-up from the bin-lined dugouts they’d left behind. Thankfully, too, budgets were allocated according to the number of people being relocated rather than the number of properties (which would have severely diminished funding). Rent rebates were also considered and trialed as a means of regulating the costs to tenants, but due to the methods employed in their means testing they eventually were scrapped as they were perceived to be demeaning and the scourge of their applicants.
And yet the pattern of problems persisted: despite these further efforts by the government to attend to the housing issue, overcrowding and low-life expectancy among residents continued through to the beginning of the Second World War. Renters were still carving out a space, and meanwhile, the midcentury shift towards homeownership loomed on the horizon.
Image credit: Ned Trifle